If you were to ask three working pitmasters to describe barbecue sauce, each might provide completely different answers. A pitmaster in the eastern half of North Carolina would say it’s vinegar and pepper, while in northern Alabama it’s mayonnaise and apple cider vinegar, and in Kansas City it’s ketchup, molasses, and vinegar.
But that’s what hardcore barbecue professionals would say. America’s concept of barbecue sauce is a homogenous, specific construct—a thick brown slather closest in spirit to Kansas City’s interpretation. “Barbecue” is perhaps second only to ranch as our sanctioned national flavor. These days, say the word “barbecue” and more often than not, meat permeated with wood smoke isn’t involved. Barbecue is a powder over potato chips, and comes in a bottle dressing pizzas, burgers, and grilled chicken sandwiches.
There are artisan small-batch barbecue sauces crafted by KCBS champions, to be sure. But today, The Takeout is exploring 9 widely available sauces found at your corner Shop-N-Save. Our tasting notes follows, our favorites below that.
The first thing I taste is meatiness; that’s the umami speaking. Then I’m picking up a strong molasses presence, with a savory undertow of dried onion. When I’m thinking of commercialized barbecue sauce with a lower-case ‘b,’ KC Masterpiece is what I’m tasting. It’s ranch-level generic, and it tastes like America.
If I were to assign percentages, Kraft’s “slow-simmered Original” would be 75 percent sweet, 20 percent tang, 5 percent black pepper. And I’m really only tasting those three elements. This is in the sphere of KC Masterpiece, but with less complexity and not-as-interesting flavor profile.
There’s a reddish ketchup-hue to its appearance. A heavy hit of vinegar and pepper, but an aftertaste that verged on plasticky. I was not a fan.
Three avenues of sugar—blackstrap molasses, cane sugar, pineapple juice—gives this sauce a smooth, forward sweetness. After that initial hit of sweet, there’s a pronounced garlic and “beefiness” (no cows were harmed during the making of this sauce), and the slightest touch of spice.
Whole Foods’ 365
Lays on thick. First thing I taste is brown sugar, with visible flecks of black pepper. You can detect a touch of vinegar, but otherwise it’s fine, if a bit one-note.
Yikes! This ain’t barbecue sauce, it’s a garlic Trojan horse. Any notion of tomato sweetness has been obliterated by its intense, chunky garlic presence. Would probably be great with grilled chicken thighs. But barbecue? Maybe if it’s Transylvania-style barbecue.
Sweet Baby Ray’s
Exceptionally smooth slather with a terrific zestiness, a natural-tasting fruit and honey sweetness, and well-balanced on all fronts. A fine, versatile, all-seasons barbecue sauce.
A multi-dimensional sauce with vinegar zip, spice, tomato, and umami. I love the black pepper bite on the backend.
Straddling that sweet-tang divide, but with an appealing complex layer of mustard. A gentle zing of spiciness appears about five seconds later, and lingers. The type of barbecue sauce that might pair well with a fattier cut of meat.
If you prefer your barbecue sauce on the sweeter end
If you prefer your barbecue sauce with a vinegary zing
If you suffer from a garlic fetish
Sweet Baby Ray’s